When The Bishop’s Wife didn’t generate sufficient box office, Goldwyn and RKO altered the title to suggest shenanigans.
There’s a tremendous distinction between Christmas and the day after Christmas. Ever since I was a kid the day after Christmas was cast in black and white; a drab, depressing, downer of a day. I say this because most of you will be reading this after the Big Day and the impact will be lessened, but Christmas morning is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and contribute to my own column of late, so, here we are.
I’ve tried to get in the spirit this year, really I have, but it’s been no-go. I sampled the usual holiday pictures, those touchstones that help us orient ourselves in time-of-year. I wanted to watch It’s a Wonderful Life the other night on NBC because it’s so key to the plot of my almost-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I walked in after it had begun and endured 5 minutes of commercials, at which point I bailed. I did sit through The Bishop’s Wife last evening, which is a picture I used to love but which, over the years, began to produce creepy feelings in me, and now I watch it the same way I do Silent Night, Evil Night, just to feel my skin crawl.
It’s been a while since you’ve been mad at me, so I think it’s time I reveal my feelings for this beloved holiday classic. For those of you who have never seen Samuel Goldwyn’s Christmas story, The Bishop’s Wife, you really owe it to yourself to spend two hours with Cary Grant as an angel sent to earth to guide the bishop, played by David Niven, his wife Loretta Young, and curmudgeon professor Monty Woolley. I now would like to go on record to describe these actors portraying these characters as creepy, creepy, creepy, and creepy.
The three stars, Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young.
First the no-brainer. Monty Woolley is supposed to be playing a charming old curmudgeon but somewhere in his backstory I feel like there’s a molestation or two. Everything about him is a little too dark, from his hoarder apartment to his writer’s block to his drinking problem. But then I’m not now and never was a Monty Woolley fan. To give you a comparison, if you were to offer me the choice of an hour with Woolley or with Thomas Mitchell (see previous columns), I’ll take Mitchell every time.
Loretta Young by this point in her career had acquired a hard, stretched, unnatural look that belies her tender age of 34. I never thought about it but she screams plastic surgery in this picture and her very appearance and particularly that hideous hat she dons in reel two and forces us to endure through the end of the picture make this woman utterly unappealing to at least one heterosexual male.
David Niven as a bishop?? Come on, need I say more. Errol Flynn’s drunken pal David Niven, playing 1000-percent against type as a man of God is just too much for me. What denomination are you again, your holiness? And what is it exactly you need help from an angel for, anyway? You are trying to build a church of some sort, and there isn’t enough money…or something? That’s the murkiest part for me, trying to figure out why the angel has come to earth. Because the reverend isn’t paying enough attention to his wife? Because he’s not building his temple? Or is it just because he’s depressed at the holidays? If that’s the case, I’d think there were better candidates for angelic visitation than a guy with a job, a big house, a wife, kid, servants, and dog.
And here’s where I speak genuine heresy. I find Cary Grant as Dudley the angel to be the creepiest thing of all about The Bishop’s Wife. Let’s compare him to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life for just a moment. Clarence is an innocent. He’s ingenuous, earnest, and so lovable we want him to earn those wings. Dudley skulks, comes around corners to startle people, has a seductiveness about him that drives the maid wild, and all but seduces the bishop’s wife. I mean, really, when he finally propositions her it’s anti-climactic because of all that’s come before. He’s an angel who seems to me like he’d be much more comfortable in Kevin Smith’s Dogma than he is in a 1947 Goldwyn picture.
Is it just me or do you prefer your angels just a little less lustful than Cary Grant’s Dudley, who seems to be eyeing up the bishop’s wife like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Now, all this is on the one hand. On the other hand, there are classic moments as well, thanks mostly to the character actors populating The Bishop’s Wife. James Gleason does his usual thing as a cab driver who is unnecessary to the plot, but character actors have to eat like everybody else. Elsa Lanchester is gently wonderful as the maid in love with Dudley. Regis Toomey should have played the bishop because he’s such a good guy by nature and that energy always shows through onscreen. Don’t you want Regis Toomey to overcome whatever obstacle he’s facing in whatever picture? There’s not a creepy bone in Regis Toomey’s body.
The darkest aspect of all: that hideous hat, which I’ll be seeing in my nightmares.
Then there’s Gladys Cooper, who steals the show as Mrs. Hamilton, the bitchy old rich lady who hamstrings the bishop with demands for recognition in exchange for her money to build whatever church it is the plot centers around. The scene where Dudley unlocks the awful secret tainting Mrs. Hamilton’s heart is beautifully played by Cary Grant and Gladys Cooper, but once again I get a little uneasy because the secret involves a wild love affair between the lady and a composer who died young. She’s still carrying a torch for the guy 45 years later and never loved her rich, dead husband—although she married him anyway and did all right for herself. I’m all for love, don’t get me wrong, and torch-carrying, but there’s something oppressive about this storyline in this instance for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.
Sex, greed, and death; yes sir, I always want these in my 1940s holiday classics. I find my own favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, to be much less ambiguous than The Bishop’s Wife, but that’s just me. Isn’t it funny that three of our enduring holiday pictures, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife were all made within two years of the end of WWII? And it’s no coincidence that all three have their dark aspects as a result.
There, I’ve had these feelings about The Bishop’s Wife locked up inside for too long and now I feel better for having revealed them, just like Mrs. Hamilton. Now maybe I’ll be nice too. Unlikely, but possible, in which case Dudley will have saved another one. Am I the only one who feels this way about this picture? Are there other holiday classics that everyone around you loves while you just don’t get it?
For those of you who happen to wander in within the next week, Happy Holidays! I have a feeling, a very strong feeling, that 2016 will be an exciting time, and I hope it will be a grand, healthy, successful year for each and every one of you.